A Gilbert mother of two, Emily Dixon knows firsthand the challenges of getting dinner on the table quickly. But Dixon insists family meals don’t have to be fancy or time-consuming.
“It’s a misconception that it takes a lot of time to cook healthy, family-friendly food every night,” says Dixon, a food blogger and recipe contributor to Sprouts Farmers Market, the national grocery chain headquartered in Phoenix. “It does not have to be overwhelming, or take more than 30 minutes, and there’s no better way to connect with your children than at the dinner table. Too many of us are not eating together at home with family because we think it’s too hard.”
According to Harvard University’s Family Dinner Project, Dixon’s right. About 70 percent of meals are eaten outside the home, and about 20 percent are eaten in the car. About half of American families seldom have dinner together.
Dixon began food blogging nearly a decade ago as a college student who cooked as a diversion from her studies. With the birth of her daughter, Sophie, the focus of her blog posts on One Lovely Life flipped from random food that caught her fancy to family-friendly meals. When she learned that Sophie, diagnosed at age 2 with autism, was unable to tolerate gluten or dairy, she expanded the blog to include specialty diets.
“I firmly believe in the healing power of food, but I also know that each of our bodies is so different, and there’s no one-size-fits-all,” says Dixon, who uses her college degree in public health and nutrition to guide her posts.
She also believes in the advice of Michael Pollan, best-selling author and food evangelist: Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.
For Dixon, it’s a sensible answer to the confusing and complicated question of what families need to eat to stay healthy. She avoids subscribing to any one eating plan, instead borrowing from a host of diets — from vegan to paleo to Whole 30.
“I try to be in the middle,” she explains. “Nutrition is cumulative, so it’s OK to take the kids out for pizza or burgers occasionally. I don’t want families to try for perfection. Simple works.”
Dixon’s healthy eating plan is more than just a prescription for good health and healthy weight. Studies show that a steady diet of good-for-you meals leads to happier, more successful kids. Studies also conclude that regular family meals lead to positive attitudes, better grades and lower rates of substance abuse, teen pregnancy, behavioral problems and depression.
An added bonus is that home cooking costs less. The average household spends about $3,000 a year dining out, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While a chicken and vegetable meal at a restaurant can cost about $10, minus tip and beverage, the same dish can be cooked at home for nearly a quarter of the cost — about $2.25.
For those transitioning from restaurants to home-cooked dinners, Dixon recommends baby steps. Don’t leap from cooking two nights a week to seven. Gradually add meals, aiming for at least five dinners per week at the kitchen table. The same advice goes for healthy ingredients. Don’t abruptly expect your family to eat a black-bean burger instead of a quarter pounder dripping in cheese. Slowly add new vegetables, fruits and whole grains, easing out foods high in fat, salt, sugar and calories.
“So many try and go from one extreme to another, and that seldom works,” says Dixon.
Karen Fernau is a longtime journalist and former food writer at The Arizona Republic.
3 recipes from Emily Dixon
A Gilbert mom, food blogger and contributor to Sprouts Farmers Market. Find more of her recipes at onelovelylife.com
Sheet Pan Sausage and Veggies
1 tablespoon olive oil or avocado oil (more, if needed)
12 ounces pre-cooked link sausage, cut into rounds (pork or turkey kielbasa, chicken sausages, andouille, smoked sausage, etc.)
2 to 3 medium Yukon gold or red potatoes, cut into ½-inch cubes
8 ounces mushrooms, sliced
2 bell peppers, seeded and diced into 1-inch pieces
1 onion, diced into 1-inch pieces
½ to 1 teaspoon garlic powder
½ to 1 teaspoon onion powder
¼ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
3 to 4 tablespoons fresh herbs, such as cilantro, parsley, dill or basil
Optional: a pinch of red pepper flakes
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Drizzle olive oil on a baking sheet. Add sausage, potatoes, mushrooms, peppers and onion, to pan. Sprinkle with garlic and onion powder, salt and pepper (and red pepper flakes, if using). Stir to combine well, adding more oil if needed. Shake to distribute as well as you can (pan will be quite full). Bake 25 minutes. Stir, then bake another 25 minutes or so, until veggies are caramelizing and sausage is browned. Sprinkle with herbs and stir to combine. Serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.
Slow Chicken Tikka Masala
1 to 1½ pounds chicken breasts or thighs (boneless, skinless)
1 onion, diced
1 tablespoon coconut oil
3 to 4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, minced
2 teaspoons fresh turmeric, or about 1 teaspoon dried
2 teaspoons garam masala
1 teaspoon dried coriander
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon chili flakes
1/2 teaspoon salt
pinch of cloves
2 to 3 tablespoons tomato paste
1 14-ounce can of coconut milk (preferably full-fat)
1 cup broth or water
¼ or ½ cup fresh cilantro, minced
Optional: For thicker sauce, add 1 tablespoon cornstarch or 2 tablespoons arrowroot
Place the chicken in the crock of your slow cooker. To make the sauce, heat coconut oil over medium heat. Add onion and cook 5-7 minutes, or until translucent. Add ginger, garlic, turmeric, garam masala, coriander, cumin, chili powder, chili flakes, cloves and salt. Cook 1-2 minutes more, or until very fragrant. Stir in tomato paste, coconut milk, and broth (or water) and stir to combine. Pour sauce over the chicken. Cook on high heat about 3 hours or on low 5-6 hours. To thicken, add cornstarch or arrowroot to slow cooker in the last 3-5 minutes before serving. Stir in cilantro right before serving. Makes 5 servings.
Vegan and Gluten-Free Taco Stuffed Peppers
Bell peppers (halved or tops cut off)
2 cups cooked quinoa
1 15-once can black beans, drained and rinsed
½ cup salsa
¼ cup finely minced red onion
Juice of ½ lime
2 to 4 tablespoons fresh cilantro
½ teaspoon cumin
½ teaspoon chili powder
Salt to taste
To serve: avocado or guacamole salsa or favorite taco toppings like sour cream, cheese, etc.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Prepare a baking dish (8×8 if you’re doing them standing as jack o’lanterns or 9×13 if you’re halving them) by filling it with ½ inch water. In a large bowl, stir together quinoa, black beans, salsa, red onion, lime juice, cilantro, cumin, chili powder and a pinch of salt. Scoop quinoa filling into peppers or pepper halves. Carefully place in your baking dish. Cover dish with foil. Bake 40-50 minutes, or until peppers are desired tenderness. Enjoy with your favorite taco toppings. Makes 4 servings.
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